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Russia's Turning Point

After five centuries of being bound and impoverished by empire, Russia and its neighbors may finally be breaking free

By William E. OdomLt. Gen. William E. Odom (Ret.) is Director of National Security Studies for Hudson Institute and an adjunct professor at Yale University. / January 28, 1992

MUCH official and unofficial Western commentary on events in the former Soviet Union is missing the point. Russia is on the threshold of breaking a vicious circle of structural problems that have condemned it to misery since the late 15th century.

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Peter Chaadaev, an early 19th century Russian, puzzled over the eternal question for Russian intellectuals, "What is Russia's purpose?" He answered that it was to suffer in order to teach the world a great lesson - how miserable life can be. A convinced Westernizer, he hoped that Russia's suffering could soon be ended, allowing it to join the rest of the human race. His opponents, the Slavophiles, saw Russia on a special Slavic path, not suffering, but showing the world a new path through Russian autocra cy.

What neither the Westernizers nor the Slavophiles understood was that Moscow had locked Russia into a vicious imperial circle as early as the reign of Ivan the Great (1462-1505). Having vanquished all the Muscovite princes, he began to expand Russian control over non-Russian peoples. That required a strong army, which in turn required a central authority that could extract resources from the peasant economy to feed and arm it.

Success in expansionism merely created more military requirements. Non-Russian peoples had to be governed by a martial regime, and neighboring states became hostile to Moscow for fear of being the next victims of Russian imperialism.

Peter the Great, at the turn of the 18th century, lent a new dynamism to this imperialism, formally enserfing the peasantry and ruining the economy on an army and navy for foreign wars. As Peter noted, "Money is the artery of war." Later in the century, Catherine the Great added massively to Russian-controlled territories, and her grandson, Alexander I, continued the tradition during the Napoleonic wars.

The structural problems for this great imperial state were three. First, the "peasant question," or how to squeeze the economy for military resources. Second, the "military question that is, how to organize, train, and operate the army and police required for imperial control. The third, the "nationality question," sharpened in the 19th century under the influence of the French Revolution and modern nationalism. The inchoate national aspirations for independence made the requirements for military and pol ice forces all the greater. That in turn left the government with little alternative but to exploit the peasant economy all the more in support of the military.

Each of these three problems, of course, reinforced the other two. And strong central bureaucratic control coupled with deep suspicions of any social, economic, or political initiative from non-government circles, became the essence of Russia's political culture. No precedent was ever established for limiting state power. The tsar was responsible only to God, never to a Magna Carta or to a constitution.

Defeat in the Crimean War in 1855 caused many key officials to believe that radical change was required. Alexander II initiated his Great Reforms in the 1860s. Social and political articulation from below was allowed in limited degree for the first time in Russian history. Truly hopeful development followed over the next five decades. The prospects for political liberalization of government were promising in the decade before war broke out in 1914.

THE Bolshevik seizure of power reversed all of this and threw Russia back decades in its political development. The Soviet regime was essentially a return to pre-1861 approaches to government but under a new ideological banner. By the 1930s, the peasants had been re-enserfed, the economy re-centralized, and imperial rule over non-Russian peoples strengthened. The military was again the government's top priority. World War II allowed another chance for territorial expansion and a reinforcement of the old vicious circle of the three structural problems. The circle condemned the Soviet Union, like the old Russian Empire, to a repressive regime at home and an expansionist policy abroad.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev may go down as history's greatest "inadvertent" revolutionary. He clearly did not understand what he was doing, but he took three radical steps toward breaking the vicious circle. First, he disavowed the ideological concept of "international class struggle," thus removing the modern rationale for Russian imperialism.

That logically led to the next step: reduction of the military burden on the Soviet economy. The official ideology defined most of the world as a "military threat" to the union, which justified unlimited military expenditures. Removing the threat with a stroke of the ideological pen, Mr. Gorbachev laid the Soviet military open to the rest of society's claims against it - against its resource priority, its secrecy requirements, its abuse of youthful soldiers, and its privileges for generals, admirals, and